Roll camera: What the new film tax credit means for our western state

Nicole Underwood

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Desert film productionAdobe stock

By Nicole Underwood / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Pinal County, AZ) - Western films have helped put Arizona on the map when it comes to recognizing our state. However, in the early 2000s, all that changed. Many states around that time did not offer tax incentives. Our neighbors in Canada and the UK did, introducing competitive tax-breaks for film locations and filmmaking that didn’t exist before and that Arizona, since then, has not been able to join in on - until now.

Film making may finally have its day in the sun in the Valley of the Sun. As films have been relocating to New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and California for desert films, or to other states like Georgia, Louisiana, Connecticut and New York (among others) for their tax incentives, Arizona finally has a seat at the table. To compete with states like Washington, who expanded its film tax credit from $3.5 million to $15 million, Arizona has a way to go. But for now, this boost gives Arizona a launching pad.

This month, House Bill 2156 passed the legislature, allowing the bill to become a law, offering up to $125 million in tax incentives to film in our copper state, starting next year. These tax credits offer film, television and commercial productions opportunities to film with up to 20-25% tax credits for their costs, based on a spending ranking system, and the credits are completely refundable.

While films have obviously been made in Arizona since the early 2000s, the tax incentive is a big draw to bring more revenue into our state, establish a stronger film industry presence, and compete in the global market. Funds that remain in our state positively affect other markets like local businesses, retail, food and beverage, entertainment, real estate, and hospitality to name a few. Indirect benefits include recognizing Arizona on the global stage, with the ability to share different stories and perceptions on what makes this state such an iconic location.

Based on the Arizona Motion Picture Production Program description in the bill, their aim is to “promote the workforce development and expansion of the commercial motion picture industry in this state.” The program will continue for at least ten years, at which point the Arizona Commerce Authority offers evaluations and suggestions on the future of the program. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Arizona Motion Picture Production Program will begin at $75 million in 2023, with a goal to $125 million growth by 2025.

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Before tax incentive programs, filmmaking was more simple. According to the Arizona Commerce, more than 5,000 films and TV shows have been filmed in Arizona since 1913 with the production of Arizona. You can view a few of the film examples here, which include blockbusters like ‘Transformers: The Last Knight,’ ‘The Covenant,’ ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ and ‘Westworld.’ You can also view a non-comprehensive list on the City of Phoenix website for other notable productions and their relative companies. However, these lists don't compare to the large level of films produced in other states.

The history of Westerns in the 1913s is synonymous with Arizona's stereotypical desert attributes: rolling tumbleweeds, gunslingers, saguaros, and saloons. But, it also includes the diverse geography, from flat deserts, to rolling hills and pine-lined forest terrain. In the 1920s, dozens of films were being created in Tucson, with the majority of them being Westerns, such as train robbing scenes.

According to Blare Films, the first western studio set was built in Tucson in 1930 for $150,000 to help bring more Westerns to life, with 30 films being created between 1945 to 1959, including ‘3:10 to Yuma’ in 1957. Many films were created in Sedona, too, with the earliest film being 'Call of the Canyon' in 1923. However, once Westerns started losing its popularity, production companies moved on to Hollywood and New York for more variety of storytelling and connection to the industry.

Tax incentive programs have proven to be successful in many states. Attracting major players like Netflix or NBCUniversal could result in huge production costs in our state, and thus, more investment into other industries like tourism, retail, hospitality, food and beverage, as well as entertainment.

Here’s hoping the cameras continue rolling for many years to come for regional desert visual storytellers of the Arizona desert.

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